Rahul Bajaj was a visionary, an industrialist who promoted Gandhian values

He used his annual presence in Davos to make a convincing tour de horizon of the great strengths and resilience of the Indian economy, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Rahul Bajaj

An icon is no more. Marking the end of an era, India mourns the passing away of Rahul Bajaj, the charismatic and pioneering leader of India’s strong and competitive automobile industry. 

Rahul Bajaj was not just Chairman Emeritus of Bajaj Auto. He was a legend, a corporate leader, a strong nationalist and a visionary who understood that the mobility of India’s vast and untapped middle class could unleash the forces that would propel the country’s economy to its present $3.1 trillion as of January 7, 2022. 

The realization of his dream was a social revolution with the ubiquitous Bajaj scooter, to be followed by the popular Pulsar motorcycle. The ‘Hamara Bajaj’ advertising campaign for his two-wheelers was a strong affirmation of an India in transformation. It was an instrument of empowerment not only of the middle class but the youth, including girls, who had never dreamt of owning their own transport. Today, Bajaj Auto, in the capable hands of his elder son Rajiv, has a marker cap in excess of Rs. 1 lakh crore. 

I met Rahul Bhai, as I called him, as Joint Secretary (Europe West) in India's Ministry of External Affairs, in July 1999. We built up an excellent camaraderie, which continued after my departure for Paris in September 2004 and subsequently to The Netherlands. He always called me his “Most Favourite Joint Secretary” even when I explained that I had been promoted! In return, I used to call him innocently “my most favourite Crorepati” until he explained to me that billionaires, as distinguished from millionaires, have a different word in Hindi! 

Rahul’s energy 

At that time, from 1999 till 2004, I was the Secretary of the Indo German Consultative Group (IGCC) whose Indian side was dominated by him. We were lucky to have such a strong Indian component led by Rahul Bhai. His energy and enthusiasm held the group together. CII and FICCI were represented respectively by their DG’s respectively, Tarun Das and Dr. Amit Mitra. Members on our side had been selected by the Prime Minister and on the German side by the German Chancellor. 

The group met annually in Germany and India. Its intention was to push investment and business opportunities on both sides. Bilateral trade and investment flows increased dramatically as a result. It was Rahul Bhai who persuaded the Germans to consider a ‘German Green Card’ for regular business travellers. The Indian side reciprocated and the system gradually spread to all India’s major business partners. It was a great innovation. 

Rahul had great contacts with Western corporate leaders who greatly respected him. A founding member of the World Economic Forum, Rahul Bajaj used his annual presence in Davos to make a convincing tour de horizon of the great strengths and resilience of the Indian economy. A convincing and compelling speaker and a true patriot, making the case for India came naturally to him. 

Heading CII 

The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) was beholden to him for his support since 1976. He was the only business leader who was twice elected as CII president in 1979-80 and in 1999-2000. He was strongly supportive of the business summits organized by CII around the PM’s visits to key countries, including the 1st India EU Summit in Lisbon in June 2000. 

Once I reached the Netherlands as Ambassador in July 2010, I persuaded Rahul Bhai, with the support of DG CII Chandrajit Banerjee to head a CII delegation to an important Indo-Dutch Business Conference in Amsterdam. He readily agreed to be hosted at the ambassador’s residence, surprising his wife Rupa who warned me on the telephone that he was a demanding guest. On the contrary, he was a charming visitor, easy to entertain and with many helpful suggestions about its upkeep. 

The event was a huge success. He charmed the Dutch and the Indian diaspora, including the huge Indian business community. He patiently and painstakingly responded to all questions, including on social issues with great élan. When I felicitated him, he said with a chuckle that he did have diplomatic skills when he wished to use them. 

Since he was a close friend of the late Mayor of Amsterdam, the equally charismatic Eberhard van der Laan, he invited the mayor to Mumbai to come with a business delegation. The mayor obliged and Rahul Bhai was able to get some excellent business opportunities for India during that visit. Later, when the mayor was fighting lung cancer, he called me to ask if he could speak to his friend Rahul in Mumbai. I immediately called Rahul Bhai who telephoned the mayor many times, to counsel, advice and to encourage him to fight to the last. 

A true friend 

These traits should not surprise anyone. Rahul Bajaj had an extraordinary large heart and was a true friend when in need. He was a family man and always told me that it was important to give spaces within families to the aspirations of others, to keep the family together. He took me once for a lunch at his factory where everyone ate together simple but nourishing vegetarian fare. There was no separate table for the boss! That was typical of his Gandhian heart. 

He promoted these Gandhian values with zeal. At the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, where I have been associated for some time, Rahul Bhai was passionately involved in the search for the four annual awardees. The most high profile was the one for promoting Gandhian values outside India by individuals other than Indian citizens. On the birth centenary of Jamnalal Bajaj in 1990, the Foundation presented a special award to Nelson Mandela including a specially sculptured trophy honouring his fight for freedom and liberation of his homeland. 

I last met my friend Rahul Bhai at the 42nd Jamnalal Award Ceremony (2019) in Mumbai. We were in touch throughout the pandemic but not in the past few months. It seems difficult to imagine that when I next visit Mumbai or Pune, I will not be able to call and see him ever again. 

Yet for all of us, his extended Bajaj family, who knew and admired him, who believed like him, in the greatness of India, who appreciated his qualities of compassion and love, he is still with us. As Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore said: 

“Remember me, still remember me, 

If I go far away, 

Still remember me.” 

Rahul Bhai, we will always remember you. You will always be there for us. 

(The author is a former Indian ambassador. Views are personal)

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